Seattle Punks Who Is She? Make Gossip Radical
The trio's debut LP, 'Seattle Gossip,' rifles off pop culture references without pausing. Right now, that's a statement in itself.
In high school, I discovered most of the music that I obsessed over on Youtube. One user, whose channel seems to have been wiped from the world wide web, posted full EPs from the then-unknown Seattle-based band Tacocat, among others, and introduced me to contemporary femme DIY punk—whoever said that everything you post on the internet is there forever doesn’t understand the uniquely millennial pain of having your most cherished teen pop culture memories permanently deleted. Tacocat’s songs about poser vegan anarchists and the virtues of wearing a leotard on a first date sounded like advice from the cool older sister I never had. They managed to reference pop culture in a way that didn’t seem at all gimmicky, which felt revolutionary.
A little less than a decade later, Tacocat bassist Bree McKenna has gone on to form the band Who Is She? with fellow Seattleite Robin Edwards (Lisa Prank). Starting as a self-described “friendship project,” the two wrote songs based on the missed connection ads in the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger while living together at the DIY punk space Spruce House. Soon, they called on Julia Shapiro, the frontwoman of Chastity Belt and McKenna’s bandmate from Childbirth, to drum for them and subsequently released their debut album, Seattle Gossip, in early October.
Listening the album feels fun and strange and new, a lot like how I felt listening to Tacocat for the first time. Each song is short, spunky, and violently catchy, with jangly guitars and Edwards’s punchy voice. As the title would suggest, it's full of Seattle in-jokes. Edwards sings about getting kicked out of The 5 Point Cafe before being able to get someone’s number in “Worst Girl at the 5 Point,” and denounces the myth of the “Seattle Freeze,” which claims Seattle residents are cold to people moving in from out of town: "It's not Seattle / It's you."
The album is shaped by the band’s obsession with pop culture, with references ranging from mainstream to obscure. “I’m Getting Courtney Cox and David Arquette Back Together If It’s The Last Thing I Do” extols the on- and off-screen chemistry of the Scream stars, while “John Titor” references the alleged time traveler who detailed his experiences mainly on late ‘90s/early 2000s sci-fi forums.
Edwards laments, “I don’t know if I have what it takes/ to LDR through time and space,” detailing the trials and tribulations of dating someone sent from the future to stop another American civil war. The group also covers Elliott Smith’s “Whatever,” which is so similar in tone to the poppy and flirtatious songs on the album that at first it’s nearly unrecognizable. The track is immediately followed by “Jordan Catalano,” about the brooding My So-Called Life heartthrob played by Jared Leto. The song’s lyrics, comprised entirely of MSCL quotes, narrate crushin’ on and then getting over Jordan Catalano.
Pop culture and punk have always crossed paths. Bands like Black Flag and Dead Milkmen have been doing it for decades. But for those bands, any reference to mainstream pop culture was almost always meant to be ironic or condescending—it’s used as shorthand for mass idiocy. Take Black Flag’s “TV Party,” where the band yells in unison about Hill Street Blues, Dallas, and Dynasty. The majority of Dead Milkmen songs feature pop culture references as well, the catchiest of which is in "Punk Rock Girl:" "Someone played a Beach Boys song on the jukebox/ It was ‘California Dreamin’’/ So we started screamin’ ‘On such a winter’s day!’” The affected dumbass personas of Dead Milkmen’s members are usually enhanced by their cultural references, like mainstream music and Charles Nelson Reilly. “TV Party” follows the same model, painting an obsessiveness over TV as sad and idiotic.
One reason that pop culture obsessiveness has been maligned as vapid is because it's always been so closely associated with femininity. Religiously following shows like Dallas, Dynasty or, even more so, daytime soaps is usually considered to be the territory of housewives with nothing better to think about. Women make up the overwhelming majority of tabloid magazine subscribers, constituting 77% of Us Weekly’s subscribers. People boasts that two out of five of its subscribers are moms. Based on their demographics, it’s not surprising that “glossies” are considered to be symbols of feminine idiocy. Maybe the men who vehemently hate markedly female pop culture––for example, the Real Housewives franchise or even the very idea of the Kardashians––actually just hate women.
It’s not a coincidence that the Kardashians and other mainstream heroines have become symbols in independent feminist art. In 2016, an anonymous person started the Twitter account @BradshawOnTour, which reimagines Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw as a DIY musician.
What’s considered by many to be the least cool franchise in the world being appropriated without entirely being made fun of by Cool Girls gives SATC a protected status. The defense of women’s media has become something of a mission statement among DIY feminist artists. Faye Orlove, the artist behind the postcard that comes with Seattle Gossip, is probably the most recognizable artist in this scene, having started the art gallery Junior High in 2016. Her work includes a North West sticker pack, Harry Styles temporary tattoos, and a Celeb Goddess Tarot Deck that features women like Cher, Madonna, and and Rihanna. Orlove’s artwork for the band is overtly feminine, depicting the band members in pastels as if they were characters on the cover of a Babysitters Club book.
The album’s title is uniquely feminine as well, though more evocative of “bad” femininity. You rarely hear the word “gossip” said without a malignant hiss, and it’s usually in reference to a woman’s perceived superficiality and/or “cattiness.” The dumbest maxim in the world is that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” I wholeheartedly believe that there is nothing more exhilarating than getting some hot gossip––sue me. Maybe being a yenta isn’t something to be celebrated, but it is really, really fun. (Just go talk about Rick and Morty with your Reddit friends, you bozos.)
Who Is She? is invested in celebrity romance, mostly between Courtney Cox and David Arquette, but also within the context of romantic comedies. “I am a non-specific media professional / And you’re engaged to someone you don’t love,” Edwards sings on “Romcom.” Though it’s a gentle ribbing, the song is, above all, an ode to the rom-com and its comforting predictability. The band has a knack for highlighting the depth that can be found in seemingly superficial media. Their first single, “Top 8,” evokes the anxiety of being publicly ranked by your friends and how Myspace turned friendship into a competition for a hot, traumatic second.
The album is steeped in ‘90s/’00s nostalgia. “Jordan Catalano,” a pastiche of MSCL quotes, is effectively more of a love letter to the show than it is to Catalano himself, no matter how cool he leans. MSCL symbolizes feeling seen and heard for the first time as a teenage girl for many millennial and Gen X women, which is why it has come to be considered sacred art. It seems uniquely feminine (or, at least, not traditionally masculine) to celebrate our sentimental attachments to the first TV shows, movies, and albums that made us feel less alone.
Hearing someone else speak at least somewhat seriously on the pop culture you love is thrilling; it’s the magic of feeling seen as a girl/woman/femme/non-cishet-dude. Seattle Gossip is fun, and, in this political climate, simply enjoying yourself as a woman can feel radical. Tacocat showed that it’s possible to be political and still enjoy yourself, and it’s just as exciting to see Who Is She? employ that same modus operandi.
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